Keeping Lennon’s Primal Legacy: Entertainer Is Force Behind Ex-Beatle Tribute Since 1981

By Halley Bondy / November 29, 2006

Joe Raiola remembers driving his cab on Dec. 8, 1980, a typical night for the actor as he headed west on Queens Blvd. cruising for fares. But as every Baby Boomer knows by broken heart, that night was anything but normal. "I was listening to 'Monday Night Football'," explains Raiola, still with a hint of disbelief. "And all of a sudden, Howard Cosell announced that John Lennon had been shot.

Raiola lost control of the car when he heard the news before he came to a screeching halt under a stoplight. "That I didn't have an accident to this day is shocking to me," Raiola says.

Like many of Lennon's most devoted fans, Raiola was shattered. He had enjoyed a deep, emotional connection with Lennon's music since 1970, when he was 15 years old. He owned all of Lennon's albums, featuring both the artist's mainstream songs and his "lost" work. Furthermore, Raiola was a devoted student of the Theatre Within, a Manhattan workshop that still embraces primal therapy: Lennon's favorite analytic technique.

Raiola drove to the Dakota, Lennon's Central Park West residence. He immersed himself in the tragedy at the scene of the crime, joining the thousands who wept that night. He was just another faceless fan then. He would never forget that night, or Lennon's influence.

In the years that followed, Raiola became senior editor of MAD Magazine, went on tour with original solo comedy shows "Almost Obscene" and "Joy of Censorship," and became associate director of the Theatre Within. But despite a busy schedule, he remained devoted to Lennon's memory, same as he was that night 26 years ago. Since the assassination, Raiola has worked annually to commemorate Lennon as an artist, a philosopher and a philanthropist.

The Theatre Within's Lennon Tribute will be staged for the 26th time on Dec. 10 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater (405 W. 55th St.). It is a charitable benefit for New York City homeless children and a series of performances in the spirit of Lennon, co-created with Raiola's Theatre Within founder, the late Alec Rubin.

This year's guests include the Wendy Osserman Dance Company, singer Michelle Shocked and Joe Raiola himself, whose comedy routines tackle politics and religion - much as Lennon once did. "My work offends people East and West," Raiola says proudly.

Raiola knew very early in his life that he wanted to be an entertainer, even though it wasn't exactly the family tradition. He grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the '60s in an Italian neighborhood. His father was an insurance adjuster and his mother worked in military protocol. Raiola cracked his first joke onstage in the fifth grade, and never looked back. The joke? He remembers that, too. "One guy said, 'Fill in the blank,' and I said, 'What blank - the one between your ears?’ ... Hopefully my material has since gotten more complex than that.

Raiola's parents were surprisingly supportive of his career choice. He graduated in 1977 with a theater degree from Adelphi - where he met his future wife, Lisa - and performed standup routines in clubs around New York City. He didn't feel comfortable there and searched for a deeper meaning in his own work. Raiola turned to primal therapy, developed by Dr. Arthur Janov in his 1970 book "Primal Scream.

The technique encourages the release of inner pain through emotional and creative expression. John Lennon, a patient of Janov, familiarized the public with primal therapy through his album "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

The album became Raiola's personal favorite. "It just stands alone," he says. "Of all John's work, I think it's the one you can call a true masterpiece.

In part because of this connection, the tribute became something bigger than just a musical celebration. Rubin and Raiola always had bigger ideas. Rubin "saw John not just as a musician but as a comedian, a clown, an artist, an actor even," Raiola explains. "So the idea was to create something that wasn't just music, but that really explored and celebrated the Lennon sensibilities in dance and theater as well.

Rubin died of a stroke last year, but the tribute is in full swing. Raiola's work was recognized by Yoko Ono herself, who featured his writing in her 2005 book, "Memories of John Lennon.

The crowd has grown over the years from a very limited one to an audience worthy of Lincoln Center, the venue last year. The tribute has come to embrace just about every kind of performance artist available, from dancers to comedians to singers Raiola discovers on the subway platforms. "I ask performers to work under the parameters that John embraced: peace, love, rebellion, spirituality, feminism and personal transformation," says Raiola. "The rest is up to them.

All the proceeds go directly to the homeless children's fund, which is a conscious bow to Lennon's philanthropic spirit. The ex-Beatle helped to fund the Strawberry Fields orphanage in Liverpool, England, staged benefit concerts for handicapped children, and once sold his own head of hair to a charity auction. The tribute also has raised more than $10,000 for the Actor's Theatre Workshop program, "Builders of the New World," which aims to promote creativity in homeless youngsters from Harlem. The program's artistic director Thurman Scott has known Raiola for 25 years through acting workshops and isn't surprised by Raiola's philanthropy. "It made tremendous sense," says Scott. "Joe's been relentless in his pursuit of this ideal and upholding what John Lennon represented.

Even beyond this tribute, Raiola makes a full-time living by puncturing sacred cows and tickling the social fabric, just as Lennon once did. As a contributor to MAD Magazine since 1984 and currently its senior editor, Raiola regularly writes satire on celebrities and the Bush administration. "MAD keeps me, in some profound and silly way, an eternal adolescent," he says. His acting work also crosses traditional boundaries. "Almost Obscene," his first (though not his last) anti-censorship solo show, premiered at the Fringe Festival in 2002, toured the country and was lauded by critics. Barbara Pitcher, director of "Almost Obscene," a seven-time Lennon Tribute performer and a personal friend of Raiola's, says he shares an emotional connection with the audience. "He's not really performing for them, he's performing with them," she says. "So at every venue I always make sure that he can see the eyes of the audience from the stage.

Though Lennon is long gone, the tribute is alive and kicking, and will remain so at least until the indefatigable Raiola tires of it. "Over time, it has become more celebratory than somber," Raiola says. "And it's now my signature work.